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End-of-Year Report: Grading My Kids' Schools

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School's out, and that means it's time again for report cards. In the spirit of the season, I have decided to issue a report card of my own. I want to share the wealth and make sure the schools that my kids attend have a taste of that accountability too. I know, I know; this is all very subjective, and it's also pretty specific to our personal situation. But there are some lessons here with broader implications. 

So here goes. 

Kid No. 1: Let's start at the top. Our oldest son, soon to be in high school, managed to work his way through another year of Accelerated Reader quizzes and some interesting elective courses with names like "Sew Cool" and "DeskTop Publishing." For the third year in a row we had to go back to the main office to have his schedule adjusted, but we've gotten used to that by now. The important thing: the kid whose principal told us two years ago that he could not be placed in "academic" classes because it would do him "irreparable harm" managed to worm his way into those very classes and made the honor roll. Not that we were surprised.

  • GRADE: B. Once we got his schedule straightened out, our son had a pretty good year. It wasn't as challenging as it could have been, but you can't win them all. 

Kid No. 2: Our middle daughter casually announced at dinner about halfway through the school year that, although she had scored in the "advanced" range on her state test last spring, she had been in a "non-academic" language arts class all year. She had an intuition, so she just walked up to her teacher one day and asked which class she was in. Her teacher responded by trying to explain to us that our daughter was, indeed, in non-academic language arts, but was doing a fine job of employing her "compensatory skills" to make up for her academic deficiencies and stay afloat in the class. Puzzled, we pointed out her test scores. Then it was explained to us that there were only so many spots available in the academic classes this year, and she had just missed the cutoff. We politely asked that she be moved. She was moved. She also made the honor roll.

  • GRADE: D+. "Non-academic" language arts for a kid who scored advanced on the state tests? Because of a quota? Seriously? In some ways, this seems like par for the course, warranting a C. But we felt we had to deduct 2/3 of a letter grade: 1/3 for ridiculous use of the term "compensatory skills," and another 1/3 for not informing us of the fact that she was placed in a "non-academic" class to begin with. There's always next year.

Kid No. 3: We endured another conference focused on "kindergarten readiness" for our youngest daughter. The emphasis here was on communication skills and friendship building—a welcome respite from all the talk about negotiating complex role play and whatnot. The highlight of that conference came when our daughter's teacher discussed the one indicator of "readiness" our daughter had failed to meet: apparently, readiness is indicated by a child's ability to give her address when asked. When she was asked "where do you live?" our daughter replied: "Earth." Her teacher reported, ruefully, that while it was technically a correct answer, she could not award credit for it. Nevertheless, we were assured she'll be ready for kindergarten.

  • GRADE: B+. At least her teacher had a sense of humor.

But the award for most interesting experience of the year has to go to our middle son, the aspiring second grader. He's still young enough to get by almost on "grit" alone, if he chooses to, but also has to mix in some academic abilities to go along with those non-cognitive skills too. That's because first grade leads to second grade, which in turn leads to third—and that's when the testing begins. 

Well, sort of. Actually, the testing has already started. Three times this year our son took a battery of "diagnostic" tests; I put the word in quotes because even though the tests are designed to help identify strengths and weaknesses, it seems the emphasis almost always falls on the perceived shortcomings exposed by the tests, not the strengths they may reveal, which then leads to much more than a diagnosis. In the world of "educational triage," the treatment goes right along with the diagnosis, even before the patient (or the patient's guardian) is consulted. Because in an emergency who has time for questions?

Turns out we had a lot of them. According to those diagnostic tests, which included DIBELS and the DRA-2 (click the links if you're unfamiliar), he was at least a half a year ahead of the grade-level benchmarks before he even spent a day in first grade. Actually, he met all the year-end benchmarks on the DIBELS test (which assesses reading fluency) on day one, and was a level 12 on the DRA-2 (which assesses reading comprehension) then as well. By January, when he was tested again, he was at level 24. The year-end benchmark was 18.

Sounds good, right? We thought so. But we were wrong.

Although his tests said he was an "advanced" reader, and that he had reached level 24 by January, our son's teacher insisted on placing him in a level 16 reading group. She based this on her observation that he had trouble adding detail in his "oral retellings" after reading, though he did answer specific questions correctly and routinely scored 90% or better on his multiple choice quizzes in class. (Yes, he took multiple choice quizzes in class. Lots of them. In first grade.) We assured her that he read very well at home. She replied that he seemed distressed when he read. We suggested maybe this was boredom, not distress. She referred him to a reading specialist.

The reading specialist, after conducting many more tests, concluded that he should be reading at level 24. If that number sounds familiar, it should; that's what his diagnostic test had said. Case closed? Not quite.

He also read in monotone when asked to read aloud in class. Again, this was diagnosed as a potential disorder. So he was referred to a speech therapist, although we did not know this until after the fact. The speech therapist quickly dismissed any concerns, but not before adding this tidbit: he noted that our son "seemed to perform better once the expectation was clear to him." Imagine that.

In a way, I can't blame his teacher for referring our son to two specialists—it's probably exactly what she was trained to do—but, on the other, this seems like such a waste of resources. If everything doesn't line up neatly in a row it could be a sign of deeper problems, that's true. But it could be nothing. It could just be a kid being a kid. I would hope that professionals exercising their professional judgment would know the difference.

In defense of his teacher, though, it's awfully hard to exercise professional judgment in a school culture that over-emphasizes accountability the way ours does, and that piggy-backs accountability on deficit model thinking. Simply put, our son's teacher—and all the teachers he'll have in the next few years—have a lot to lose if, for some reason, our son backslides into "bubble kid" territory. The tests and the specialists function as a kind of insurance policy, a way of protecting an important asset—in this case the teacher's job, which is certainly worth protecting—in the event of unforeseen disaster. In the minds of a lot of teachers and administrators, there's nothing to lose by referring a kid to a specialist for more testing. But like doctors who schedule unnecessary exams and tests, these teachers do themselves, and indeed the system as a whole, a terrible disservice when they do that. And they do their students the biggest disservice of all. We might like to think that additional tests can put someone's mind at ease, but education, like medicine, is not always so cut and dry. Often they raise more questions, which can only heighten anxiety, and needlessly at that. Especially when you're looking for diseases instead of health.

Adding it all up now, it seems we still have a long way to go if we want to move past the deficit model that has been institutionalized along with the accountability measures brought to us by "reformers" in the past few decades. Whether we talk about gaps or deficiencies or compensatory skills or accommodations we're saying the same thing: some kids have it, and some kids don't. Well, okay; but focus too much on the deficiencies and how to accommodate or compensate for them to close the gap, and before long you lose sight of the person sitting right in front of you. Deficit thinking presented itself to us this year in ways that affected all four of our children, indicating, once again, that it is as pervasive now as it is dangerous. Our son can read—anybody who spends any time with him and asks him to do it can see that. Yet we continue to make this harder than it has to be.

It doesn't have to be this way. Every year my wife says, more than once: "I just want to love our kids' schools." I couldn't agree more. What would it take for schools to step back and simply appreciate the quirks and ambiguities and unique personality traits that make kids who they are? To recognize that what kids show them in school is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg? To really mean it when they say "we value parent involvement and input," not sweep it under the rug when parent questions expose inconvenient truths? If I were really handing out report cards this year I'd give my kids' schools, collectively, a C. Love this is not. At least not yet. These schools will have to do a lot more to impress me to get that grade up to where it ought to be.

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